Game of Thrones really does feel like a book on screen, and not one of those slow painful “let me describe how green the forest is” affairs, but a rich and detailed world with a vast array of characters and politics barrelling along at a mile a minute. With only ten episodes in the season everything flew by, there was no time or space for filler content, the amount of plot condensed into the short space of time was more the density of a film than television. Compare it to something like Mad Men or The Good Wife and the season long arcs they have would have been covered in probably half an episode of Game of Thrones, or utterly discarded as not nearly epic enough.
For anyone familiar with this genre, there isn’t really much going on here that’s massively original – the family issues and political manoeuvring are fairly standard fair. In fact if anything made this stand out in the genre of epic fantasy, it was actually the lack of fantasy. I mentioned in my pilot review that a couple of dragon eggs and being set in a different/alternate world didn’t really feel like true fantasy to me. By the end of the season there was a little more of the magic about, and at least they followed the rule that if you see dragon eggs in the first act, by the final act they must hatch, but I kept hoping for something altogether more fantastical. Interesting ideas like the wolves who supposedly act as companions and protectors to the Stark family are horribly underused, only appearing on screen when they are convenient to the plot.
Character development is a bit like that too. The problem with the large array of characters and density of plots is that you never really get to see characters just going about their day to day lives. They’re always dashing from one melodramatic moment to the next. Characters that I hadn’t paid attention to, assuming they were background fillers suddenly developed into key roles, while the people who seemed important had a tendency of disappearing. You do have to kind of just accept these things and go with what you’re given, and the extremely charismatic cast certainly helps with that, but it can be a bit unsettling.
In many ways the biggest problem that I have with the show is the very thing that enabled it to be made in the first place – it’s on cable. The great thing about being on HBO, Showtime or the other subscription based channels in the US is that the executives don’t care about reaching millions of casual viewers, they want to draw in a loyal few hundred thousand viewers who will pay $15 a month or so to watch their shows. Cable shows want critical praise and buzz and will spend a lot of money on their shows to get it. However Game of Thrones fell into the trap of “can show nudity and violence, so must”. I don’t want to sound prudish but there was generally at least one scene per episode that was… unnecessary. Having character biography explained while two prostitutes are having a lesson in how to be convincing lesbians was kind of… bizarre. It just felt a little bit like everyone was trying too hard to appear grownup, which actually made it feel childish and silly. For the sake of these few scenes it becomes a show that you can’t watch with your parents, which seems a real shame to me
Generally I think this is a show that’s struggling with what it actually is, conflicts between fantasy and mainstream, entertainment and drama. Some of the stories it was dealing with were powerful and heartbreaking, others were over the top and cheesy. I enjoyed watching Game of Thrones – its production values were phenomenal, its plots interesting, dialogue entertaining and acting engaging; but sometimes it felt like it was trying to be all things to all people, and therefore failing to completely satisfy any of them.
Slouching Towards Thatcham has a much more detailed review – “Like the book, this first season has been complex, layered medieval fantasy for the intelligent viewer, that makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy look like a simple children’s story. It’s not for the prudish or the squeamish – or for those who prefer their drama spoon-fed in easy, bite-size portions – but it has been a hugely rewarding ten hours of television.”
The Guardian’s review is painfully similar to mine (I only read it after I’d finished my review, I promise!) – “This has largely proved to be a sensitive, clever and, above all, compelling adaptation. Yes, there are flaws: Benioff and Weiss can get a little over-excited about the freedom offered by US cable TV and the number of sexposition scenes became ridiculous long before the end.”